Animal Emotions

Do animals think and feel?

Blackfish: “A Whale Has Eaten One of the Trainers”

This film about Tilikum shows why orcas shouldn't be caged to entertain.

"A whale has eaten one of the trainers."

The above quote comes right at the beginning of Blackfish, a most riveting and highly acclaimed film directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, and sets the stage for making the case that killer whales, highly intelligent, emotional, and sentient beings, should not be kept in captivity and be forced to perform stupid unnatural tricks for human entertainment or be forced to breed to make more killer whales who will spend their own lives languishing in tiny watery tombs.

Blackfish truly is a “mesmerizing psychological thriller with a killer whale at its centre [and] the first film since Grizzly Man to show how nature can get revenge on man when pushed to its limits.” Justin Chang, who reviewed Blackfish for Variety magazine, called it a “compelling psychological profile” of Tilikum. “The impression the film leaves is of a deep-pocketed institution that, for all its claims of humane and professional treatment, tolerates practices that are fundamentally at odds with the animals' wellbeing and refuses to accept any portion of responsibility.” Louie Psihoyos, Oscar-winning director of The Cove that tells the horrific story of dolphin slaughter in Taiji, Japan, told me, “Blackfish is truly a great film. At film festivals I've seen audiences leave the theater staggering. I can't wait for it to do its work.”

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Blackfish, to be released in July in the UK and the United States, is about a notorious wild-born killer whale named Tilikum (AKA Tilly), whose name means “friend” in the Native American Chinook language, who killed three humans in captivity, including a well known whale trainer named Dawn Brancheau (his third victim) at SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida on February 24, 2010 (see also “Whales and people: Tilly is not to blame for this avoidable tragedy” and “Deaths at SeaWorld: Animals are Dying to Entertain In this SeaJail”, a review of Death at SeaWorld: Shamu and the Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity by David Kirby). 

It was this last tragic incident that caught the world's attention and in 2010 SeaWorld was fined $75,000 by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for three safety violations, including one classified as willful, after an animal trainer was previously killed (for more summaries about this and other situations at SeaWorld please see). Tilikum had been sold to SeaWorld with the understanding he would not be used in shows, according to his former trainer. There is no doubt he was “mentally scarred” by being captured as a youngster and later he was roughly treated during training and bullied by other whales. In addition, Tilikum was forced to breed and masturbated to do so. 

Tilikum clearly is not a happy whale and like other animals, captive and wild individuals as well, Tilikum likely suffers from a severe psychological disorder such as depression and/or PTSD. Nonetheless, Tilikum is still forced to perform at SeaWorld but trainers do not have direct contact with him. SeaWorld continues to deny any wrongdoing. 

Unfortunately, killer whales and other highly sentient beings continue to be shipped here and there, from one zoo or aquarium to another, to be used in shows that generate a lot of money or to breed. We need to respect these beings for who they are and not put them on display as if they're some sort of commodity or object who live for our own entertainment, because they're not. Indeed, whales possess spindle cells that are important in processing various emotions and anyone who's been around orcas and other cetaceans knows they are extremely emotional beings. Some people argue that cetaceans may fulfill the criteria for being called “persons.”

Animals like Tilikum are severely mistreated and dying and killing in the name of money 

SeaWorld is really a SeaJail and a whale mill and should be ashamed of how they keep highly sentient beings and for continuing to deceive an unknowing public about what they really do and why they do it. Simply put, SeaWorld heartlessly abuses amazing animals, forces them to perform stupid and unnatural tricks, forces them to breed, and doesn't allow them to retire, all in the name of money. They've been caught and fined before and let's hope that this careful scrutiny continues. Animals like Tilikum are severely mistreated and suffering, dying, and killing in the name of human greed and profit. 

My heart goes out to the humans involved in tragic encounters with orcas and other animals and also to the animals themselves. We need to take all measures to make these sorts of encounters become things of the past. The compassionate conservation movement (see also and) is one such move in the right direction because of its focus on the well-being of individual animals who need all the help they can get. 

The teaser image of a young girl holding a poster saying "BORN TO BE WILD" is taken from the film. 

Marc Bekoff, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

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